What are the chronic complications of diabetes?
These diabetes complications are related to blood vessel diseases and are generally classified into small vessel disease, such as those involving the eyes, kidneys and nerves (microvascular disease), and large vessel disease involving the heart and blood vessels (macrovascular disease). Diabetes accelerates hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) of the larger blood vessels, leading to coronary heart disease (angina or heart attack), strokes, and pain in the lower extremities because of lack of blood supply (claudication).
The major eye complication of diabetes is called diabetic retinopathy. Diabetic retinopathy occurs in patients who have had diabetes for at least five years. Diseased small blood vessels in the back of the eye cause the leakage of protein and blood in the retina. Disease in these blood vessels also causes the formation of small aneurysms (microaneurysms), and new but brittle blood vessels (neovascularization). Spontaneous bleeding from the new and brittle blood vessels can lead to retinal scarring and retinal detachment, thus impairing vision.
To treat diabetic retinopathy, a laser is used to destroy and prevent the recurrence of the development of these small aneurysms and brittle blood vessels. Approximately 50% of patients with diabetes will develop some degree of diabetic retinopathy after 10 years of diabetes, and 80% retinopathy after 15 years of the disease. Poor control of blood sugar and blood pressure further aggravates eye disease in diabetes.
Cataracts and glaucoma are also more common among diabetics. It is also important to note that since the lens of the eye lets water through, if blood sugar concentrations vary a lot, the lens of the eye will shrink and swell with fluid accordingly. As a result, blurry vision is very common in poorly controlled diabetes. Patients are usually discouraged from getting a new eyeglass prescription until their blood sugar is controlled. This allows for a more accurate assessment of what kind of glasses prescription is required.
Kidney damage from diabetes is called diabetic nephropathy. The onset of kidney disease and its progression is extremely variable. Initially, diseased small blood vessels in the kidneys cause the leakage of protein in the urine. Later on, the kidneys lose their ability to cleanse and filter blood. The accumulation of toxic waste products in the blood leads to the need for dialysis. Dialysis involves using a machine that serves the function of the kidney by filtering and cleaning the blood. In patients who do not want to undergo chronic dialysis, kidney transplantation can be considered.
The progression of nephropathy in patients can be significantly slowed by controlling high blood pressure, and by aggressively treating high blood sugar levels. Angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors (ACE inhibitors) or angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs) used in treating high blood pressure may also benefit kidney disease in patients with diabetes.
Nerve damage from diabetes is called diabetic neuropathy and is also caused by disease of small blood vessels. In essence, the blood flow to the nerves is limited, leaving the nerves without blood flow, and they get damaged or die as a result (a term known as ischemia). Symptoms of diabetic nerve damage include numbness, burning, and aching of the feet and lower extremities. When the nerve disease causes a complete loss of sensation in the feet, patients may not be aware of injuries to the feet, and fail to properly protect them. Shoes or other protection should be worn as much as possible. Seemingly minor skin injuries should be attended to promptly to avoid serious infections. Because of poor blood circulation, diabetic foot injuries may not heal. Sometimes, minor foot injuries can lead to serious infection, ulcers, and even gangrene, necessitating surgical amputation of toes, feet, and other infected parts.
Diabetic nerve damage can affect the nerves that are important for penile erection, causing erectile dysfunction (ED, impotence). Erectile dysfunction can also be caused by poor blood flow to the penis from diabetic blood vessel disease.
Diabetic neuropathy can also affect nerves to the stomach and intestines, causing nausea, weight loss, diarrhea, and other symptoms of gastroparesis (delayed emptying of food contents from the stomach into the intestines, due to ineffective contraction of the stomach muscles).
The pain of diabetic nerve damage may respond to traditional treatments with certain medications such as gabapentin (Neurontin), phenytoin (Dilantin), and carbamazepine (Tegretol) that are traditionally used in the treatment of seizure disorders. Amitriptyline (Elavil, Endep) and desipramine (Norpraminine) are medications that are traditionally used for depression. While many of these medications are not indicated specifically for the treatment of diabetes related nerve pain, they are used by physicians commonly.
The pain of diabetic nerve damage may also improve with better blood sugar control, though unfortunately blood glucose control and the course of neuropathy do not always go hand in hand. Newer medications for nerve pain include Pregabalin (Lyrica) and duloxetine (Cymbalta).